Palmyrah (Borassus flabellifer) is the state tree of Tamil Nadu. From the leaves being used for manuscripts, to the split trunk being used as roof joists, palmyrah trees had been an integral part of Tamil life.
With changes in cultural and social milieu, they lost their importance. In realty and industrial agriculture, they were considered worthless and axed, resulting in significant loss in tree count.
While coconut trees had snapped into two or even four parts after Cyclone Gaja struck, the palmyrah trees were intact.
Cyclone Gaja having demonstrated its sturdy nature, and its ability to lessen the impact of natural forces, the importance of palmyrah tree is being appreciated.
Palmyrah trees are commonly seen between agricultural fields in Tamil Nadu. “People used them to mark boundaries, given their long life of 120 years,” said Ranjit Daniels of Chennai-based Care Earth Trust that works on biodiversity conservation.
Earlier, all parts of living and dead trees found use in everyday activities of rural communities. Trunks were used as rafters and pillars for house construction.
As leaves were periodically pruned, the long and sturdy leaf bases were used as fences and the leaves as roofing material. Once concrete structures became popular, palmyrah lost its importance.
In 1987, the Tamil Nadu government banned toddy, a fermented drink tapped from the inflorescence, adding to the decline of palmyrah products. According to Samuel, more than a million (10 lakh) people lost their jobs because of the ban.
Palms grow in all types of soil and climatic zones. They are seen in large numbers in coastal Nagapattinam, fertile Thanjavur and in arid Ramanathapuram.
Panchavarnam R., former chairman of Panruti panchayat and author of a book on palmyrah, said that they were traditionally planted where forests ended and human habitations started. Planted without much gap, the rows of trees prevented carnivores and elephants from venturing into villages, thus preventing human-animal conflict.
“Peacocks rest on them and sunbirds drink nectar from the inflorescence”, Bird watchers have observed parakeets and Indian rollers nesting in palmyrah trunks.
Other birds like palm swifts, silver bills, white-breasted kingfishers and shikras have been observed on them. On a single palmyrah tree, many baya weaver nests can be observed in villages.
With the younger generation preferring other jobs, the number of climbers declined. This led to farmers selling palms in their land and village committees selling those in common land, as firewood to brick kilns.
“It doesn’t need space. With no canopy, it doesn’t interfere with buildings. There is no superstition attached to the tree,” said Daniels. “In places like Chennai, prone to cyclone and rain, the government should promote planting them in public places.”
While government departments do not have a census, everyone agreed that palmyrah count has drastically reduced.
To revive the same, youth, communities and some political parties have started planting seeds in public places.